In 1990, we began operating under the assumption that the sockeye salmon in Redfish Lake were comprised of the original gene pool. That was an assumption and again I do not take issue with the efforts to create strong runs of sockeye back to Redfish Lake that began in the 1990s and today have produced three very good years in returns compared to the last 35 years.
I can say with some sense of assurance that we have already lost the wild sockeye of Redfish Lake way back in 1913 with the construction of Sunbeam Dam. Sunbeam Dam closed off the upper Salmon River, which was the route to Redfish Lake. Sunbeam Dam was breached in 1934 and sockeye returned to the lake. I guess, to be honest, I could argue this either way and the assumption in 1990 was as good as any other assumption. The truth is we don't know if Redfish Lake sockeye were returning below Sunbeam Dam and spawning and when it was breached they then returned to the lake several generations removed. Or I guess it is possible that since kokanee are a freshwater form of sockeye salmon that it is possible that kokanee, genetic cousins, from Redfish Lake possibly produced offspring with an ocean-going Jones. I don't know, it seems unlikely, but in the absence of genetic information or some definitive way to mark kokanee offspring I can't say for sure. Though, it seems more likely that the sockeye were just waiting below Sunbeam Dam each year for an opportunity to go higher.
But as great as our efforts to save the sockeye in the 1990s through today, we have lost at least the wild aspect of these fish. I can't say this enough that I am greatly pleased with these recent strong runs of adult sockeye returning to the Sawtooth Valley, but we have to admit that we have lost something and the sad thing is we may never know what that something was or when we lost it.
My hope for these fish and for us as well is that we one day come to the realization that they will be better off without our "help." They will be better off with free flowing rivers. They will be better off if they go through their entire life cycle without our intervention. Yes, we had to intervene and we almost waited too long to do so with "Lonesome Larry" being the only male sockeye to return in 1992. That was better than 1990 when none returned. That was also better than 1995 and 1997 when no sockeye came back to the lake.
The last few years have seen the best returns for sockeye to the Sawtooth Valley with 650 in 2008, 833 in 2009, 1,355 in 2010 and 1,100 this year. Though these numbers are nowhere near what our ancestors spied when they reported in the 1880s redfish numbering between 25,000 to 30,000.
At least in the case of sockeye, we acted before it was too late, we let Snake River basin coho salmon in Idaho go extinct in 1986. Today, we are seeing some decent returns on efforts to replant coho salmon. My question is will we wait until the last second to ensure the survival of spring, summer and fall Chinook and steelhead as well? That is human nature and we are blinded by hatchery augmented runs of Chinook and steelhead. Will we blink an eye if we are still allowed to fish for those fish if one day someone reports their wild counterparts are now extinct or now number in the single digits? The time to act was years ago, but we can only start today. Why not now?